Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Sunday Memory Drawer - My Top 10 Christmas Movies of All Time

In no particular order.   No reason to rank these because they all have equal importance to me and my life.   And, yes, I have run most of this blog entry in previous years.   But, it's my annual holiday service to you.   Don't we all need a break today?

Maybe the weather outside is frightful.  Or you're wrapping presents.  Baking cookies.  You might want to multi-task by watching one of these movie suggestions.  They're all available on DVD.  And Turner Classic Movies shows several of them every year. 

These are my 10 must-watch movies for every Christmas.  And please note that "Miracle on 34th Street,"  "It's A Wonderful Life," and "A Christmas Story" are not included.  Don't get me wrong.  They are all terrific films, but played to death everywhere but in my house.  These movies all have personal connections to me in some shape or form.  So, if you disagree, I hope there's some coal mixed in with your buttered popcorn.

1.  I just saw "Meet Me in St. Louis" in a theater for the very first time.   They dragged out co-star June Lockhart for a post-film question-and-answer.  Ironically, most of the people were there to ask her all about the TV show "Lost in Space."  Hell, I want to know what Angela Cartwright is doing myself.  

None of that has anything to do with how wonderful a holiday treat this movie is.  Truth be told, Christmas only makes up one-quarter of the movie as it follows the Smith family through one whole year prior to the opening of the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.  Each portion is devoted to a calendar season and Christmas dominates the winter as it should.  

The scene where a dateless Judy Garland has to dance with her grandfather at the big Christmas Eve ball is priceless.  He twirls her around the Christmas tree and she magically reappears with her beau who was late in arriving.  One of those very simple cinematic moments that only director Vincente Minnelli could turn into pure gold.  

Of course, this is the film that sports my very favorite Christmas song..."Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."   If you've heard countless versions of this ditty, you need to listen to the very best rendition by Miss Garland.

I remember watching "Meet Me in St. Louis" with my mom when I was about seven or eight.  In the middle of it all, she blurts out "if you had been a girl, I was going to name you Judy."

Okay.   So, there's that. 

2.  This is a mid-40s classic from the Warner Brothers back lot. In fact, they don't even get off a soundstage. For a movie from that era, it is still surprisingly modern. Because star Barbara Stanwyck plays a character very similar to Martha Stewart. A magazine writer who specializes in being an expert on hearth and home. And supposedly the greatest cook on the planet.

Her publisher hits on a publicity stunt where Stanwyck will provide a home-cooked Christmas meal for an injured soldier. Except nobody knows the woman can't cook and hasn't got one single domestic talent. The plot spins out into several directions from there, but it is all delicious screwball-y fun. And any movie that features S.Z "Cuddles" Sakall is okay in my book. This is a perfect film to watch while wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve day.  Or if you're finished off a quart of egg nog.
3.  This is technically not a Christmas movie, but it should be, since all the action happens around the holidays. This 1941 movie is another one that never leaves a Warner Brothers soundstage, but it really doesn't have to. You may know that this was originally a big hit on Broadway as written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. And two members of that cast, Monty Wooley and Mary Wickes, reprise their roles in the movie, which features the most razor sharp dialogue ever captured on celluloid. 

There's not one unclever moment in the entire six reels. Who can't identify with the holiday guest who just won't leave? In this case, it's renowed critic and lecturer Sheridan Whiteside, who sprains his ankle and then sets up camp in somebody else's house for the holidays. As portrayed by Wooley, Whiteside is loosely based on Alexander Woolcott and he has one great barb after another. He's described this way: "He would have his mother burned at the stake if that was the only way he could light his cigarette." I wish people talked like these characters in real life. 

When Whiteside's nurse (Mary Wickes) forbids him from eating some candy, he retorts, "My great Aunt Jennifer ate a box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be one hundred and two, and when she had been dead for three days, she looked better than you do now." If that's not enough, throw in the fact that this is the only movie in history that co-starred Bette Davis and Jimmy Durante! Grab a box of your own candy and savor this great Christmas treat.

4.  Yeah, yeah, I know.   An obvious choice.  And, gee, Len, isn't this movie shown to death already?  Sadly, "White Christmas" is starting to fall in that category---the Christmas movie that is starting to look like your tree on January 15.  Dried out and ready for the dumpster.  You can thank some cable networks like the woefully annoying AMC for playing it over and over and over.  

Gee, thanks, idiots.  Because you're destroying another movie that landed on the list of my Top 25 Favorite Films of All Time at slot #23.  Sure, after repeated viewings, this film starts to look like "Off White Christmas."  But, still, it holds a special place in my heart and now, after some restorations, the film looks glorious all over again.  There was a special showing at selected movie theaters a few weeks back and, of course, I went.  If you missed it, the Blu Ray edition will do.  I'd be happy to loan you mine.

Right from the moment that Paramount's Vistavision logo exploded onto the screen to the last frames of the movie when the Pine Tree Lodge is celebrating a snowy Christmas Eve, I was moved to tears all over again.  Just like the very first time I saw it about 24 years ago.  When I was having a pretty crappy holiday and this boosted my spirits like a Vitamin B-12 injection. 

I had both my parents housed in separate hospitals with illnesses. Unfortunately, my dad was in the final stages of his cancer and this year would be his last Christmas. My mom was sequestered elsewhere dealing with one more smoke-provoked bronchial episode. I spent the holiday season shuttling between semi-private rooms located on opposite ends of Westchester. And I felt incredibly alone.

"White Christmas" gave me a little bit of hope and brightness for some darker days that would come. And it still shines for me every year.  Plus it's my second "must watch" holiday film featuring Mary Wickes.
5.  Yeah, yeah, you've never heard of it.  I did list it as #25 on my list of Top 25 Favorite Films of All Time, but perhaps you missed that entry.  And you say it's not a Christmas movie??

Oh, pish and tosh.  The film opens and ends on Christmas day one year later.  Good enough for me.  And it embodies everything that Christmas is all about.

"Since You Went Away" came out in 1944 and it is 100% devoted to the homefront during WWII. For what "Mrs. Miniver" and "Hope and Glory" did for the London bombings (and I have a good friend who lived through that), "Since You Went Away" wonderfully depicts life in the United States when most men were overseas someplace and completely out of touch with their family and loved ones. David O. Selznick produced it and hoped to do for World War II what his earlier effort "Gone With the Wind" did for the Civil War. Yes, it's almost three hours long, but it sails by and, for me, is a big screen version of the best macaroni and cheese you can ever eat.

Claudette Colbert plays the mother of Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple (here, she's a teenager and Bill Robinson-less). The family is semi-well-to-do and lives in Everytown, USA. Hattie McDaniel, who was obviously highlighted in Selznick's phone book for all servant roles, is their housekeeper and there is not a single stereotypical note to her performance. You never see the father as he has just left for active duty on Christmas Eve as the film opens. What follows is a year in the life of the Hilton family with Dad gone.

You visit USO dances. You experience food rationing and scrap metal drives. You watch as neighbors lose loved ones in battle and then sense the uneasiness as others in the community grapple to find the right words to comfort them. It is probably the truest picture of life in our country as that war raged on in Europe and the South Pacific. The courage. The resiliency. The dread. It is all here in this terrific slice of Americana.

I came to see this movie for the first time about 17 years ago. I've probably seen it once a year ever since and always during Christmas week.  For me, it is a annual reminder of my grandmother, who was a mother during World War II. And she shared virtually all of the stories that are portrayed on screen. On cold winter Sunday afternoons, I would sit in her living room and hear about rationing and community dances and the fear that wrapped around you when a letter from the government arrived in the mail. She lost a son in France in 1945---I was named after him. This movie gives me more than a history lesson. It gives me back my grandmother one more time.

"Since You Went Away" turns up on Turner Classic Movies. It is worth three hours of your time. I defy you not to well up at the end of Act 1 or just prior to the finale. I double defy you.

6.  Forget "Elf" and any other Yuletide crap that Hollywood has passed off the last few years. The best Christmas movie to be produced in the last ten or so years is "Love Actually." It's one of those ultra-episodic scripts where about 15 characters have different storylines that may or may not be connected. It's a little confusing at first, as you meet practically the entire London phone book. But, hang on and you will get a wonderful present. 

Sure, there are about five characters and three storylines too many. But, they will scoot by quickly and you can revel in the more compelling tales. Laura Linney as a secretary who can't commit to any romance. Liam Neeson who is trying to be a parent to his young stepson as they both experience their first Noel without the recently-died Mom. The shaky marriage between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, who breaks your heart as she listens to a Joni Mitchell CD version of "Both Sides Now." I even liked Hugh Grant as a Tony Blair-like British Prime Minister. And there is a rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is You" that gives you goose bumps. If you've ever wanted to spend Christmas in London, this is the ideal virtual way to do so.
7.  Okay, what's a Christmas without one Disney cartoon?  And this one is the best in my book.  Because it was my mother's favorite cartoon.  Curiously, I don't remember seeing it with her on one of the many Disney re-issues over the years.  But, when it came out on...wait for it...VHS several decades ago, I bought it and we watched it together one Christmas afternoon.  Suddenly, I was the child again and Mom was the parent again.  Indeed, as always happens with aging folks, the dynamic had reversed.  But, not on this day.  Thank you, Lady and the Tramp, for one of the very last good and lasting memories of my mom.
8.  And then there's Christmas with Dad.  Here's the movie that connects me to him every December.  And, no worries.  This rollicking World War II comedy has a set piece that happens on Christmas Day when Tony Curtis is trying to steal some Polynesian farmer's pig for dinner.  But, moreover, this is the movie that I remember hearing my father laughing out loud for the very first time.

I know I saw it with him in a theater.  I do believe it played at the RKO Proctors in Mount Vernon, New York around Christmas time.  This may have been the way that I was shuttled out of the house for a few hours so that Mom could wrap my presents.  A lot of the ribald gags might have gone over my head.  But I didn't care.

My dad was convulsed with laughter.  And this was not a sight I saw frequently.  Plus there was one line that he repeated over and over and over when we got home.

"Can this submarine go down?"

"Like a rock."

For some reason, Dad loved that exchange.  Meanwhile, I did the same thing with this film when it came out many years ago on....wait for it again...VHS.  I watched it with my father one holiday season. 

He still laughed.
9.  Okay, truth be told, I don't watch "Ben-Hur" every year.   Since I'm already devoting three hours to "Since You Went Away," I'm not sure I have the time to view this three-hour-plus epic.  But, frequently, I can hear the voices in my head.  Most notably that of my mother, who used to drag me to every Biblical movie ever made.  She may not have gone to church, but she sure did run to the theater every time Charlton Heston appeared in a gladiator outfit.  Oddly enough, this was not one of the movies she took me to.

But then there was one holiday season where Judah Ben-Hur and I finally crossed paths.

On December 30, 1987, I tripped on my sneaker laces coming out of my bathroom.  Falling forward, I landed on my right arm with pain so severe that it actually made me laugh.  Nevertheless, I still headed out for the evening, totally ignorant of the fact that I had fractured the rotator cuff in my right shoulder.

I was less ignorant in the morning when the excruciating pain and a neighbor drove me to the emergency room.

Happy F-ing New Year!

I couldn't raise a glass of cheer, because I could barely raise a pencil. So, I was cooped up for the frivolity. And, to get my mind off my chipped bones, I decided to rent the longest movie I could find at the video store. That would be the 1959 rendition of "Ben-Hur," which I had surprisingly never seen. And, so I sat in front of a 19 inch television, arm in a sling and watching, for the first time, one of the biggest and successful epics Hollywood had ever made. It was probably the worst way to sample this film. And I certainly have seen it several times since in much better viewing conditions. But, I can't say that I have enjoyed it more than I did that very first time.

"Ben-Hur" is total validation that, at one isolated point in the fixed universe, Charlton Heston could really act. For a movie that is so large in scope and long in running time, "Ben-Hur" is an incredibly intimate story. Because, indeed, it's about one man's spiritual awakening.

Many of the movie's sequences are so legendary that all I have to do is simply mention them and you can conjure up an immediate image. The ship's galley. The chariot race. The leper colony. But, for me, the most memorable scenes are the ones where Judah Ben-Hur encounters Jesus Christ. The first time finds a beaten Judah, enslaved in a road gang, and a traveling Jesus gives him a drink of water. Many reels later, Judah returns the favor when Christ falls in front of him while carrying the cross to his own crucifixion. The symmetry of those two points in the movie is truly amazing and wonderfully choreographed by director William Wyler.

Of course, this was in the day when Hollywood worked hard to never show Jesus Christ's face on camera. Today, they probably would have no shame and they'd probably even cast Seth Rogan in the part.

You can't truly appreciate "Ben-Hur" until you see it on a big screen. And a wide one. A really wide one like the Egyptian Theater had several years back when I saw it there.   But the Blu-Ray on the 42 inch-screen in my living room last year wasn't bad either. 

And my arm wasn't in a sling.

10.  Okay, one more and I'm saving the best for last.  Truth be told, I watch "The Apartment" every year during the week between Christmas and New Year's.  Both those holidays are featured in the film, but it's the really organic blend of comedy and drama that makes it perfect for the post-Christmas doldrums.  You will laugh.  You will cry.  You will be moved.  It is life itself and that's why "The Apartment" is my #1 favorite movie of all time.  To understand it is to understand what we all deal with every single day.

There's no magical story why I am so connected to this film.  I did not see "The Apartment" till well after I got out of college. Now, it's one I see every year. It is an essential part of my annual film viewing. But, every time I see it, there is some new emotion or nuance that reveals itself to me. Perhaps it's a look or gesture from Shirley McLaine or Fred MacMurray that I missed. Maybe it's a line of dialogue that I suddenly realize was set up by another line of dialogue one reel earlier. There's always some new discovery for me.

And maybe it will be a discovery for you.  As well as the rest of the movies on this list.  Sure to bring holiday cheer...and even a your Christmas festivities.  Watch them with friends and family.  Watch them alone.

Just watch them.   And, if the Christmas tree lights are twinkling in the background, even better.

Dinner last night:  Garlic noodles with chicken and shrimp at Wokcano.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two of my faves for Christmas are "The Ref" and "Remember The Night".

"Ref's" Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey are married and at each other's throats as their family descends to spend another Christmas together. It's all about holiday tensions and frictions, relatives forcing themselves to be in the same house when they should stay in separate time zones. Solidly funny from start to finish.

Preston Sturges wrote "Remember The Night" prior to his directing stint at Paramount. The lines crackle with cynical wit. Barbara Stanwyck's a street-smart shoplifter taken home for Christmas by prosecutor Fred MacMurray. Of course, they fall in love. Great cast and all the emotions are earned and credible.